The dorm room was lonely, Neville thought morosely. With Seamus and Ron both gone, neither Dean nor Harry spent much time there any more. Dean had sneaked out to be with his current girlfriend, and Harry was down in the Common Room, where he’d been spending most nights since he returned from St. Mungo’s. Even Trevor was sound asleep. Ignoring the stiff breeze that blew across the lake, the young wizard threw open the windows and let the night air fill the room. The clean cold wind ruffled his hair and danced through the dorm, leaving dust motes spinning madly in its wake. There was music on the wind. It took Neville a moment to realize it. Horn, harp, and drum spun and flowed around him, almost too faint to hear. As he listened, the music grew louder, winding around his soul and searching out his dreams, the ones he acknowledged and the ones he’d never dared speak aloud.
Something went snap inside his mind, and the music swelled within him. It filled him, quenching a thirst he didn’t know he had. Hardly realizing what he was doing, he grabbed Harry’s Firebolt and climbed out onto the window ledge. “Up!” As soon as the broomstick touched his hand, he straddled it, grabbed the stave in a firm grip, and took off toward the Siren’s call coming from the Forbidden Forest.
It was only a few moments before he touched down at the edge of the woods. From here he could hear voices singing as well. Voices of angels, he thought with the part of his mind that wasn’t filled with the music. Voices like church bells and songs like those in his dreams. He couldn’t understand the words, but he felt the meaning behind them. Leaving the broomstick behind, he picked his way through the forest, ever drawn by what he heard. He splashed across a stream and saw moving lights in a clearing ahead. Cautiously, he peeked around a tree, amazed at the sight before him. Pale and terrible, beautiful as crystalline ice, the Sidhe danced and sang around their fire, while one played an ivory harp and another a silver drum. The brass notes of a horn played by a third gamboled around the dancers.
Neville had never seen anything like them before. They leaped through the figures of their dances with a wild agility that he could only envy. Never missing a note or a step, they sang and danced as the moon rose high and then began to sink again. Only then did he realize he’d been standing there, leaning against the tree, for hours.
As he turned to make his way back to the edge of the forest, a dry branch crackled underfoot. Within moments, the Sidhe had surrounded him and pulled him – gently enough – into the light of their fire.
“What do you here, mortal?” one asked. He sounded more curious than angry.
“I was listening to your music,” Neville replied promptly enough. He couldn’t imagine why he wasn’t terrified, but he wasn’t. “It’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”
The Sidhe exchanged startled glances with each other. “Mortals don’t usually hear us,” said the drummer, peering into his face. “Most odd.”
“Should we kill him and be done with it,” asked one of the dancers as he shook out the silvery fall of his hair. “Mortals have no business here.”
“This one hears us, Erias. We should not kill him out of hand.” That was the harpist. He fingered the strings of his instrument, plucking out an arpeggio. “Are you a musician, mortal?”
“Not the way you are. I play a little on the violin.” Despite all this talk of killing, he still wasn’t terrified. A little nervous, perhaps, but not paralyzed with fear.
The other Sidhe clustered around Neville. “I would expect a musician to hear us,” the horn-player mused aloud, “but you say you are not one. It is a puzzle.”
The harpist resumed his seat on a fallen log. “There is more of the night left, Achrion. Enough for another song or two.” He struck two chords and launched into a slow soft tune. Half a measure later the drummer joined in. Achrion raised an eyebrow, but pulled his horn from his belt and placed it to his lips. The dancers formed up in a circle around the fire, pulling Neville into their midst. All his clumsiness melted away as the music spun and flowed around them.
When the false dawn lit the sky, the Sidhe reluctantly put down their instruments. “We vanish with the day, mortal,” Erias told him. “But this night will live in our songs.” He slid a ring off his forefinger and wrapped Neville’s hand around it. “A token of our regard. Come and dance with us again.” The last words were difficult to hear as they melted into the morning mist.
Neville looked at the ring on his palm for a long moment. Wearing it openly would raise questions that he did not want to answer. The thin silver band winked at him in the morning sun. “Confound it,” he said aloud as he slipped it over his forefinger just as Erias had worn it.
“If I didn’t know better,” Snape groused to Duster a few days later, “I would think that someone or something is conspiring against us.” After the initial success of the first stage of the Animagus Potion, he and Hermione expected a relatively easy time with the second stage. This view turned out to be overly optimistic.
The Potions Master contemplated the latest failed experiment. “This is the third failure, Duster. First that flawed beaker shattered and contaminated the ingredients. Then Peeves somehow got past my wards and wrecked the next attempt. This time…” He glowered at the bright purple potion gently bubbling in the cauldron. “It should be blue, not purple. And it should be much more viscous – more like a gel than a liquid.”
Hermione entered the lab then, her arms laden with books. “I’m going to cross-check all the ingredients again. May I borrow your copy of Double, Double?”
Snape nodded assent. “While you are doing that, I will discuss this with Professors Flitwick and McGonagall. Perhaps we need to modify the Charm portion slightly. Please annotate our notes with the results as well.” He swept out of the room in a flurry of black robes.
She set the books down on the table, and looked at the potion. “He’s right. It should’ve been blue – or at least bluer. I wonder if some of the ingredients were contaminated.” She took out a clean piece of parchment and a quill, and began writing. “Experiment #3: failure. Potion is definitely purple instead of blue, and far too liquid. Will cross-check ingredients for interactions, and discuss modification of the Charm. We should definitely examine this failure to eliminate possible contamination.” The notation done, she blew gently on the ink to dry it and set the parchment aside.
Cleaning up the lab was relatively easy. She filled three large vials with the potion, being sure to label them clearly. The rest of the potion went down the sink. Then she scrubbed the cauldron and left it to drain. Chores done, she retrieved Double, Double from Snape’s desk and sat down to begin the process of rechecking their work.
Once he was sure she was absorbed in her reading, Duster left the lab and went in search of Crookshanks. Their pets were not easily discouraged, and he was running out of ideas. “It’s one thing,” he groused to his partner-in-crime, “to let Animagi speak to humans while transformed. But we cannot let them complete this next stage.”
“Agreed. Allowing them to understand animals – and Familiars by extension – would put us at great risk of discovery. What did you do to the potion this time?”
“I adjusted the heat upwards several degrees while they were both out of the room. We can’t do anything too obvious, or they’ll realize something is not right. Sev is already becoming suspicious.”
“Letting Peeves in the lab was brilliant; it’s too bad we can’t do that again.”
“I was hoping he’d get into the supply cabinet and completely destroy some of the more costly ingredients,” Duster said. “I suppose that will be my next step.”
“How are you going to cover it up?”
“I’m not. I’m going to let one of them ‘accidentally’ lock me in the cabinet over night.”
Crookshanks cat-smiled and scratched one ear with a large orange paw. “It would be best if you arranged to have Severus do that. If he thought Hermione did it, he would get angry with her.”
“Excellent thinking. We have two days before they should begin brewing it again. I understand there is an infestation of rats in the kitchen storeroom. Shall we do something about that?”
“Yes!” The two cats streaked down to the storeroom and spent the day decimating the rat colony.
Argus shuffled into the Great Hall for breakfast with Ivy beside him and Hephaestus trailing them both. As usual, they were the first of the staff to arrive. Taking their customary seats, they ordered breakfast from one of the house-elves, not forgetting to ask for a plate for the fluffy grey Persian. Bumpy, the elf who took care of their quarters, had already provided a breakfast for Mrs. Norris and the kittens.
“We need t’ find homes for them kits,” Argus said, reaching for the Marmite. “I been thinkin’ that Albus might like one.”
Ivy considered the question over her poached eggs. “Albus has Fawkes. But there’s three or four youngsters in my House who don’t have Familiars. I’m sure there’s more in the other Houses.”
“We’ll jus’ make sure they know an’ like cats,” the caretaker replied definitively. “Ain’t no good will come of it elsewise.”
The staff table slowly filled, each taking their favorite seat. Albus had asked everyone to be present, as he had an announcement to make. Naturally, however, he and Minerva were the last to arrive, which provided the others a rare opportunity to speculate on the nature of the announcement.
“He and Minerva are finally going to get married,” predicted Flitwick.
“Nonsense,” Irma Pince returned. “The Headmaster is going to announce an increase in the budget for new reference tomes.”
“Naw,” Argus contributed, “’e’s going to have us band t’gether and blast them Sidhe outta the Forest.”
“I have Seen it with my Inner Eye,” Sybil Trelawney proclaimed. “Albus will announce the formation of a fifth House to hold these transfer students we are receiving from Durmstrang. It shall be called ‘Dumbledore’, of course, and shall have a black and purple phoenix as its symbol.” She waved one hand theatrically. “Of course, this House shall be famous for the number of Seers it produces.”
Their speculations were cut short by the arrival of the Headmaster and Deputy Headmistress. They strolled in arm-in-arm, paying no mind to the mounting irritation on the part of the rest of the Hogwarts faculty. Fawkes was perched on Dumbledore’s head, making it appear that he was wearing a squashy red-feathered cap.
“Finally!” Snape muttered to Flitwick who was sitting beside him. “Now we can find out what this nonsense is all about.”
“Good morning!” Albus beamed a smile around the table. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve asked you to be sure to come to breakfast this morning.” He assisted Minerva into her chair with a flourish and took his own seat. “Muffins, please!” A plate of hot blueberry muffins promptly appeared in front of him. He broke one apart and buttered it, his smile growing even wider if that were possible.
“Albus,” Xiamora Hooch had had enough. “What is this announcement you wish to make?”
“All in good time, my dear.” The Headmaster looked up at the sound of wings. “Ah, there’s the post.”
“The post be damned,” she whispered to Lucius. “The more Albus hedges, the worse it’s going to be for us.”
The headmaster was oblivious to anything but the various letters falling onto the table like snowflakes. Poppy exchanged an exasperated look with Ardis Vector. Firenze folded his arms over his chest and regarded the ceiling as if it were the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. Finally even Minerva had had enough. “Albus!”
“Yes, Minerva?” He looked up from the letter he was reading.
“We are all here, waiting for you to make your announcements. I’m sure many of us have other things we should be doing.”
Bright blue eyes twinkled at her. “Very well, then.” He put down the letter he was reading and raised his voice slightly so everyone at the staff table could hear him. “I do have a few announcements to make, and it’s much easier if everyone can hear them all at once. First, we will be holding a Saint Valentine’s Day dance. I expect everyone to attend.” He shot a particular glance at Snape who glared right back at him. “This gives you a fortnight’s notice, so you will have plenty of time to clear your calendars. Students will be excused from detentions for this one night. Everyone will be expected to dance at least once, as well as spend three hours on chaperone duty.”
“I think that a dance is an excellent idea,” Poppy said. “It will give the students a chance for an evening of fun before they begin studying for their OWLs and NEWTs.”
“Next,” Albus continued, “there has been some discussion about forming a fifth House. After due consideration, Minerva and I have decided that this is not the future we wish for Hogwarts. Therefore, the influx of new students we are to receive will be handled by Sorting them into the four existing Houses.”
Sybil looked crushed. Firenze put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“On that note, I have yet to receive any recommendations for assistants from you. I need those by the end of the day. Otherwise I will have to use my best judgment.”
Nothing like a subtle threat to get everyone to fall in line, Snape thought to himself as he speared another slice of pumpernickel. Judging from the sour expressions on his colleagues’ faces, they had come to the same conclusion.
“I would like you to consider Susan Bones as an assistant for me,” Poppy said into the silence. “I know she is young for the job, but she has the right temperament. She has planned to become a Healer, so a few years as an assistant would be an excellent entry on her C.V.”
That started a new train of thought in Snape’s mind. Perhaps Miss Granger would be willing to become his assistant as well as Apprentice. True, it would probably extend her Apprenticeship for a year, but it would save him the annoyance of managing more than one person. He would ask her immediately.
“Liam Carpe – you remember him from ten years ago, don’t you Albus? would be my first choice for an assistant for Charms,” Flitwick told the headmaster.
Dumbledore nodded. “Yes, Mr. Carpe was quite inventive as I recall. And Poppy, I believe that Miss Bones would do well as your assistant. The rest of you – by the end of the day.” He rose, clearing his throat to get the attention of the students. “I am pleased to announce that we will be holding a Saint Valentine’s Day dance this year, and all students are eligible to attend. Detentions will be canceled for that one evening. Thank you.” He sat down again, oblivious to Argus’ muttering.
“One more thing…” Heads shot up all around the staff table. “Minerva and I are getting married.”
With a dance looming in the not-too-distant future, it was no wonder that the students were slightly distracted for most of the day. Minerva McGonagall was not pleased to have to take points from her own House for inattention. Finally, the overly long day wound down with the seventh year Gryffindors. She looked over her oldest students, the ones she considered her best and brightest. Until Poppy had mentioned it, the idea of taking an assistant that young hadn’t occurred to her.
She’d been dismayed to discover that most adult witches and wizards – particularly those who held anything resembling qualifications – were not interested in taking a low-paying job as an assistant professor. In fact, at least two of the eight people she’d contacted had said that the proposed starting salary was far too low. She would have to talk to Albus. But in the meantime…
Minerva turned her attention back to her students. Mr. Potter was making a respectable attempt at recovering his grades. Unless he received another setback, he would do well on his NEWTs. He had his heart set on playing professional Quidditch, and she would do everything she could to help him achieve that goal.
Miss Brown and Mr. Longbottom, seated directly behind Mr. Potter, were simply dismal in Transfiguration. Neither would do as an assistant. Besides, she knew they had other interests. She wouldn’t be at all surprised if Sybil offered Miss Brown an assistantship. Poor Mr. Longbottom, though, was just not suited for the academic life.
Mr. Thomas across the aisle was a possibility. He was quite competent, and he freely admitted that he had no idea what he wanted to do once he’d left school.
Her eyes grew suspiciously moist as they tracked over the two empty chairs – the ones that were once occupied by Ron Weasley and Seamus Finnegan.
Miss Patil was another possibility. Minerva added her name to her mental list.
That left Miss Granger. She was in her customary spot in the front row. The harsh lines around Minerva’s face softened just slightly as she looked at her favorite pupil. She would be an excellent assistant! “Miss Granger, please stay for a moment after class. I’ve something to discuss with you.”
Hermione looked up and nodded, before returning her attention to the essay she was just finishing. As soon as the other students had left the room, Minerva offered her the Assistantship.
“You’re young for such a position, I know,” the older witch went on, “but it would look well on your C.V.”
“Oh, um… I’m extremely flattered, professor…”
“Excellent! I’ll tell the Headmaster that it’s all settled.”
“Wait, professor! I can’t… I mean, I’ve already accepted an Apprenticeship!”
Minerva looked shocked. “An Apprenticeship? With whom? As your Head of House, I would’ve liked to have been informed.”
“I’m sorry, professor. I hadn’t told anyone else yet.”
“Well then,” Minerva was somewhat mollified, “what are you apprenticing in? Charms? Transfiguration?”
“Potions.” Hermione took a long breath. “Potions, with Professor Snape.”
Minerva sat down slowly. “He is a Master, and you would certainly learn a lot from him, I admit. But would you be happy as an Apprentice? If Sev – Professor Snape were to insist on the traditional contract, you would have no time to call your own. Apprenticeships are traditionally unpaid positions as well. An assistantship, on the other hand, would leave you with time to pursue your own studies, as well as provide you a living wage.”
Hermione looked stubborn. “I’m aware of that, professor. But an assistantship doesn’t provide me with any certifications.”
“Well, I shan’t try to change your mind, Miss Granger. I do hope it’s everything you expect it to be. Get along to your next class, now.”
The soft thud of a closing door nearby brought Crookshanks out of a sound sleep. He jumped off Hermione’s bed without waking her, and oozed out into the hallway, carefully remaining in the shadows. A figure scuttled out of the boys’ dorm and down the stairs toward the Common Room. Curious and slightly concerned, the gingery kneazle followed.
His senses, sharper than an ordinary cat’s, told him that it was the Potter human. Crookshanks bared his fangs in a soundless snarl; that whelp would not upset their plans again. Oddly, though, the human didn’t seem inclined to do anything once he got to the Common Room. Instead, he sat down in one of the chairs and gave every appearance of waiting for something.
Crookshanks sensed the ghost before it faded into view. It wasn’t Nearly-Headless-Nick, though. This was the ghost of a young man. In fact, it was the ghost of that red-haired human who’d been sniffing after Hermione for a time.
“Hello, Ron,” Potter said softly.
“Hello, Harry.” The ghost sat down in one of the other chairs. “All right there?”
“All right, I suppose.” A pause. “I miss you.”
“Well, mate, I wasn’t planning on dying. Neither was Seamus. But if we hadn’t disarmed Voldemort, things would’ve been a lot worse.” The ghost put on a stern look. “Remember what I told you at St. Mungo’s?”
The human nodded, “Yes. It’s not Snape’s fault that he’s still alive when Sirius is dead. And it’s not Malfoy’s fault that he is alive when you are dead.” He dropped his eyes and studied the floor. “It’s not easy. I hated them both for so long.”
“Right. That’s why I came back after you made such a prat of yourself. I told you that you couldn’t use Hermione as a lifeline to the past. You have to look to the future.”
“I still don’t see why I can’t marry her though.”
The ghost sighed. “Two reasons. One – she’d be miserable as a Quidditch widow, following you around to games. She doesn’t like the sport. Hell, she doesn’t even like to fly. Two – you want different things out of life. She wants a career of her own. You want a family. Think it through, Harry. It wouldn’t work out.” Now he grinned. “You’ve made a good start by setting aside the hate you were carrying around. Now look at your options. There are other girls here.”
“Ginny plays Quidditch,” Potter mused half to himself.
“That she does. You’ve been part of my family for a long time, Harry. Would be nice to make it official.” The ghost waved an ethereal hand at the chess table. “While you’re mulling over that, shall we play? I’ll spot you a castle and still beat you.”
As they set up the chess pieces, Crookshanks left the room and went back to Hermione. Nothing like being haunted to turn someone around! I had wondered why Potter started behaving. That was one less worry. Now he could go back to concentrating on his pet.
By the eve of the Saint Valentine’s Day dance, Severus was half-convinced that there were indeed forces working against them. Every time they attempted to brew the potion that would allow an Animagus to communicate with other animals, something went wrong. Miss Granger was taking the lack of success quite personally, although he’d assured her that he would not hold it against her.
They stood together in the lab, regarding their latest attempt – their tenth dismal failure. “I checked and double-checked all the ingredients,” Hermione said. “And I had them in tamper-proof containers to prevent contamination.”
Snape dipped a spoon in the cauldron and gave the oily green liquid a poke. “Green, instead of blue. That indicates an issue with…”
“Improper temperature,” she finished. “I know I set the temperature correctly. I checked it. You doublechecked it.”
“So you did, and so did I.” He ran a hand through his hair in a rare gesture of frustration.
“It’s like someone’s working against us, making sure something goes wrong with the brewing process,” she said. “I guess that sounds silly.”
“On the contrary, Miss Granger, I had almost reached that conclusion myself. I refuse to believe in this level of coincidence.”
“But why would someone want to prevent this?” She sat down at her desk and propped her chin on her hands. “It’s not dangerous. It can’t hurt anyone.”
“The more interesting question is: who. Consider what we have dealt with. Peeves got into the lab. That means someone knows how to take down my wards without alerting me. Ingredients have gone missing or been contaminated – but only those ingredients that we use in this potion. We have had equipment failures – the cracked caldron and flawed beaker. Lastly, at least twice, we have failed to maintain proper temperature. I refuse to believe that we are both so careless.”
“So whoever it is knows what ingredients we are using, has access to our lab and our storeroom, and knows something about brewing potions.”
“And is quite good at evading detection charms.” Snape grimaced. “I added a few extra frills to the wards here last night.”
“I don’t think a student is responsible,” Hermione declared. “I think I could break your wards – so could most of the seventh year students – but not without alerting you.”
“I agree.” The Potions Master leaned against his desk. “That leaves the faculty and staff. Albus and Minerva could certainly remove my wards without my knowledge. Filius could probably do the same. Minerva, though, is the only one who knows what we’re working on.”
“What about the house-elves,” she asked, thinking of Kreacher. “I know it sounds silly, but…”
“That is a possibility that is more palatable than the alternative. It is difficult to persuade a house-elf to revolt, but it can be done. There’s that free house-elf that Dumbledore hired.”
“Dobby? He wouldn’t do something like this without a good reason.” She tilted her head to one side as a thought struck her. “If Harry were still being a prat, I’d be inclined to suspect him of trying to scuttle our project so I’d lose interest in it. Dobby would help him; he worships him.”
“Mr. Potter has been remarkably well-behaved of late, I’ll allow.” The Potions Master picked up the cauldron and dumped the contents down the sink. “I agree that he is not likely to be behind our trouble here.”
“The ingredients were contaminated with cat hair the night Duster was locked in the supply cabinet accidentally,” Hermione said thoughtfully, tactfully avoiding mentioning that it was Snape who had locked up the cabinet that night. “Something’s been bothering me about that.” She went over to the cabinet and opened the doors. “Look at the way the shelves are laid out. I don’t see how you could fail to notice him. It’s not like he’s a kitten.”
Snape stroked his chin thoughtfully. “True. That means that someone put him in there after we left.”
“Or maybe he put himself there,” Hermione said half-jokingly. “Crookshanks likes to get into inconvenient places sometimes.” Her grin faded slowly. “Professor, what makes a wizard pet different from a Muggle pet?”
“That is quite the non sequitur, even for you,” Snape replied. “I think you might get a better answer asking Hagrid.”
She snorted inelegantly. “Hagrid’s nice enough, but he’s not the best at providing serious in-depth answers. I know wizard owls are a lot smarter than Muggle owls. Are they bred specially? If not, what makes the difference?”
Snape opened his mouth to answer and then closed it again. “I really don’t know the answer to that. Why do you ask?”
“It just seems… every time something strange happens, one or more of our Familiars – I mean all the Familiars at the school – are around.”
“An interesting thought,” he replied slowly. “I think there might be some merit to it. Now, however, we have the unpleasant duty of attending that dance.”
Hermione made a face. “I don’t suppose we could ‘forget’? No, I guess not.” Then she grinned impishly. “Will I need to rescue you from Madame Pince tonight?”
Snape almost smiled. “If Irma attempts to corner me again, I shall certainly ask for your assistance.”
Up on the beams of the room, out of sight, a gingery kneazle and a large black tomcat exchanged worried looks.
“This is going to be a blast!” Dennis Creevey exulted as he entered the Gryffindor Common Room. “It got me out of detention with Filch tonight. And I don’t have to make it up! Hullo, Neville! New robes?’
“Err, yes,” Neville replied nervously as he sidled toward the portrait. “My Gran got them for me.”
“Who are you taking to this dance? Hannah again?”
“Um, no. I’m going with Millie.”
“Millie? Don’t know her. Oh well. See you there!” He let Neville escape, and waved at the other boys who were piling into the room to wait for their dates.
“’Scuse, please!” Colin elbowed his way through the mob, careful not to muss his lime-green dress robes. “Coming through!”
“Where are you off to?” Harry asked, self-consciously pulling his own robes straight.
“Ravenclaw Tower. I’m taking Luna to the dance.”
Harry shook his head as Colin departed, his ubiquitous camera in hand. “They’re both ditzes. It should be interesting.”
“What would?” Ginny wanted to know, as she bounced down the stairs and took his arm. “I’m ready, Harry.” She was stunning in deep-blue robes that matched her eyes and set off her hair.
He grinned down at her, feeling good for the first time in far too long. Ron was right; Ginny was a better match for him than Hermione. “Colin and Luna.” Then he opened the portrait with a flourish. “Shall we?”
Hermione trailed after the other couples, not caring that she had no escort. No one had even asked her this time, for which she was grateful. The only person she wanted to dance with was Severus.
As they entered the Great Hall, the couples split off in various directions. Harry and Ginny headed for the dance-floor. Dean and Parvati for the refreshments, and so on. Hermione faded back into a relatively quiet corner and scanned the room for Professor Snape.
He wasn’t anywhere in sight, but she did see Filch guarding a large basket. Curiously, she moved closer, trying not to be obvious. As the first dance ended, the caretaker adroitly intercepted Ginny. Hermione couldn’t quite hear what he said, but the look on her face was one of consternation that quickly changed to amazement followed by pleasure. Harry’s expression mirrored hers. The two followed him over to the basket, and Ginny knelt down beside it. By this time, Hermione was close enough to hear.
“Oh they’re beautiful, Mr. Filch! Don’t you think so, Harry?”
Harry nodded, a grin on his face. “Absolutely.”
Ginny rose, a small black and orange kitten in her hands. “Are they old enough to leave their mother? You’re sure?”
“Yes’m. They’ve been eatin’ on their own fer a while.” Filch extended a long bumpy finger and gently stroked the kitten’s head. “Be good to him now. We wouldn’t let ‘em go to just anyone, y’know.”
Hermione watched this little drama in surprised silence. Kittens! She shook her head in bemusement.
“Something funny, Miss Granger?”
She turned around and looked up at Professor Snape, still smiling. “Mr. Filch is apparently offering kittens to students. He just gave one to Ginny.”
“He offered me one earlier today, but I already have Duster. I like cats well enough, but would rather not go through the kitten stage again.”
“I don’t blame you. Crooks was well beyond that when I got him.” She looked past his shoulder. “Madame Pince is bearing down on you like a hungry wolf.”
“Blast.” Snape held out a hand. “They’ve just started a waltz. Would you do me the honor?”
“Certainly!” They weren’t the only student – teacher couple on the floor; Ardis Vector was partnering Dean Thomas for this dance. Ginny and Harry swung onto the floor beside them and Hermione tensed in anticipation of an ugly scene. Instead, her old friend nodded civilly and waltzed away.
Lucius couldn’t find it in himself to be too harsh with the students he caught in various stages of dishabille the evening of the Saint Valentine’s dance. After all, it was a romantic occasion. He was currently taking advantage of a dark corner to thoroughly investigate Xia’s charms. That she was reciprocating enthusiastically only added to his pleasure. In the back of his mind, he contemplated all the possible outcomes of his plan for the later evening. If the worst happened, he did have a fine bottle of wine sitting in his quarters.
“It’s too bad we have to chaperon the students,” he whispered into her left ear.
She ran a long-fingered hand down the side of his face. “Yes, but it’s only for a few hours. We’ve the rest of the night and there’re no classes tomorrow.”
“True enough.” He cocked his head toward the Hall. “Would m’lady do me the honor of joining me in a dance or two?”
“I’d love to!” They linked arms and went inside. The musicians had just struck up a tango, and very few couples dared the dance floor. Nearly Headless Nick was doing a fine job of it with the Grey Lady, and Albus was leading Minerva through intricate figures that made Lucius suspect the use of magic. Of the students, Ted Nott and Lavender Brown were clearly the best, followed by the Thomas boy and Miss Bones from Hufflepuff. With a smile, Lucius led Xia out onto the floor.
She felt good in his arms. Like she belonged there. They were so attuned to each other that it was almost unclear who was leading whom. He was unaware of the other couples clearing the floor and leaving it to them. There was only her and the music and their passion for each other. As the tango ended, they made their way to the refreshment table where he poured them each a tumbler of pumpkin juice. “Not my beverage of first choice,” he said, “but it will do to quench the thirst.”
She clinked her glass against his. “To good friends! May we remain ever so.”
He obediently drank the toast, though he wondered if that was all she wanted of him. “Xia… I believe we’ve fulfilled our obligations here. Shall we go someplace quieter?”
“I’d like that.” They worked their way around the perimeter of the room and made their escape. The rest of the school was virtually deserted, and they strolled through the halls, arm in arm. “Lucius, I’ve been thinking about us.”
“As have I.” That was the perfect opening. “I realize we haven’t know each other long, but I enjoy your company greatly.” He took a long breath. “I would like to formalize our relationship.”
She tilted her head to one side. “Formalize how?” He can’t mean what I think – what I hope – he means. Can he?
“I have thought about it for this past week, and I cannot think of anyone else I would like to spend my life with.” He turned his hands palm up. “Xia, I want to marry you.”
She took his hands in hers. “Oh, Lucius, I was going to ask you!” Before he could do more than smile, she continued, “but I need to tell you something first.” Now it was her turn to take a long breath. “I’m pregnant.”